Friday, June 09, 2006

Hammer Time

I reached down and grabbed him under the arm and yanked him to his feet. His eyes bugged. Maybe he thought he was dealing with somebody soft. “Listen, pimple face. Just for the fun of it I ought to slap your fuzzy chin all around this room, but I got things to do. Don’t go playing man when you’re only a boy. You’re pretty big, but I’m three sizes bigger and a hell of a lot tougher and I’ll beat the living daylights out of you if you try anything funny again.”

So Mike Hammer tells that young punk Hal Kines early on in Mickey Spillane’s I, the Jury. Such a tactic is familiar to anyone who remembers the playground, where a standard ploy for dealing with bullies is to show them aggression. Having seen so many back down from them before, they often become unsettled by such demonstrations of strength and will back down themselves. Such is the advice we also frequently hear for dealing with overly-aggressive poker players -- wait for the right moment, then come back “over the top” and watch him scurry away as you gather his chips.

Dan Harrington actually calls this play “the Hammer” in the first volume of his Harrington on Hold ’em. “When you see a super-aggressive player move into a pot, and you have some kind of reasonable hand,” writes Harrington, “don’t just call; come over the top with a big raise.” Doing so “takes courage,” says Harrington, but is generally successful because, “paradoxically, super-aggressive players aren’t looking for expensive confrontations.”

Of course, most of us aren’t badasses like Mike Hammer. That means whenever we do grit our teeth and try to bully the bully, we are essentially playing against our true natures. In this situation, if you are normally a conservative player (like Harrington), you find yourself temporarily having to play an unfamiliar role in the hopes of creating a favorable outcome for a particular hand (and perhaps affecting future play by demonstrating to the table that when playing with you they aren’t “dealing with somebody soft”). This kind of performance is much easier said than done for most of us, I’d venture. In a NL tournament (the primary context for Harrington’s advice), opportunities to “drop the Hammer” can come infrequently, making it all the more crucial to be successful when the time comes to do so.

Let’s say you are in a tourney and for the last 4 or 5 orbits a super-aggressive player has been raising preflop anywhere from 2x-4x the BB approximately half of the hands. You’ve seen a couple of showdowns where he’s had to reveal holdings like QT-offsuit or 65-suited, so you know his range of raising hands is damn wide. You’d know that even without having laid eyes on the samples, of course -- no one ever picks up premium hands half the time, even for a single orbit. Now you’re sitting there with a below average stack and you’ve become gripped with the notion that dropping the Hammer on this guy is for you both a desire and a necessity. Like Mike Hammer, who can’t proceed with his investigation until he deals with the Kines kid, you know you probably won’t get much further in the tourney until you deal with your adversary.

Without any obvious tells to guide you, you cannot possibly know when this louse preraises whether he’s hiding J8 or the Hilton sisters. It appears, then, at least three criteria need to be satisfied before making your move:

1. You have a “reasonable” hand. You can’t move in here without packing some kind of weapon with which to fight. You needn’t necessarily have a loaded .45, but a nice-sized cudgel will do. What constitutes a “reasonable” hand is entirely up to you, but it has to be a hand with which you won’t fear a call. Any hand (except kings or aces) fears a reraise, but you should have a decent range of hands that you can play with confidence here if called. If the hand isn’t strong enough for you to withstand a call from the bully, don’t try the move here.

2. You have position. Unless you’re planning an all-in move (thereby negating the significance of position), you have to be later than the bully here in case he does call your reraise. You simply cannot be acting first after the flop, particularly if you have a hand that is at the bottom of your range of “reasonable” hands with which to make this move.

3. No one else is going to enter the hand. This is probably the most crucial factor to consider, as you cannot reasonably expect to drop the Hammer successfully when a third player decides that pot odds make a cold call of your reraise the right play. If a player between you and the bully decides to rereraise, then you make like a tree and get the heck outta there (unless you hold kings or aces, of course). But you cannot allow a third player to call you here. This means knowing something about the tendencies of the players sitting in between you and the bully and betting the right amount to keep them out.

Even knowing these criteria, I generally find dropping the Hammer a difficult move, especially in tourneys. I’ll do it in my low limit ring games where the stakes aren’t as high (and where I’m generally more aggressive myself). However, in tourneys I find it hard to grab the dude under the arm, yank him to his feet, and tell him what I’ll do if he tries anything funny again.

Image: A standard household claw hammer, public domain.

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